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Ten Ways to Detect a Lie or Secret

The human mind

Body language is like a key to a hidden language: understanding it helps bring out another whole level of communication that isn’t normally visible to us, even though we sometimes react to it without knowing what’s driving our reaction. Of course, one of most the useful applications of understanding body language (as well as speech patterns and facial expressions) is detecting lies. This article offers ten ways to do that.

Unfortunately, body language isn’t as simple as one position or gesture always meaning one thing, but it can provide strong clues to what other people are thinking. Multiple clues taken together can provide a clearer and more definite picture of what’s going on in another person’s mind, especially when we take speech and facial expressions into account.

Sometimes when we hold something back or are feeling anxious, we act as though we’re lying even when we aren’t–so lie detection can sometimes mean just detecting that there’s something hidden, even if the words being spoken are true.

Here are ten indications that someone may be lying:

1. The nose touch. When we lie, we have a built-in urge to cover our mouths. However, most of us naturally learn to curb this at a young age because it’s such a clear giveaway. The urge is still there, though, and so the movement often turns into touching the nose or another part of the face.

2. Repetitions and hesitations. When we lie, we are more likely to hem and haw, and also more likely to say something more than once or with more emphasis than it requires.

3. Crossed ankles. This one usually happens when someone is sitting, and it tends to mean that something is being held back or hidden.

4. Looking to the left. When we remember, we’re more likely to look to the right; when we’re making things up, we’re more likely to look to the left.

5. Touching the back of the neck. As funny as it is to hear, touching the back of the neck is often an unintended signal that someone or something is “a pain in the neck.” This move may happen when an unwanted question is asked, or when dealing with something the person considers a nuisance.

6. The mouth smiles, but the eyes don’t. Telling real smiles from fake smiles isn’t always easy, but one of the bigger giveaways is that the mouth may change shape while the eyes don’t move. Real smiles usually include crinkles around the eyes. (See “How to Tell a Real Smile from a Fake Smile.”)

7. The lopsided smile. Real smiles are usually made with the whole mouth. If a smile is lopsided, it’s often not completely sincere.

8. A flash of worry. A “microexpression” is a very brief facial expression that occurs without the person intending or generally even knowing it has happened. A worried or angry microexpression that’s replaced by a happier look can indicate a lie.

9. The mouth says yes, but the head says no. When a person is saying something positive but accompanying it by shaking the head, that’s often a signal that they don’t believe what they’re saying. If the statement is negative, though (for instance “I am not interested”), then a head shake is a natural way to emphasize and confirm.

10. Freezing up. When we lie, we tend to have trouble reacting the way we normally would, and we stop using our normal gestures and maintaining a comfortable person-to-person body relationship. A person who’s lying will usually be more physically awkward and less physically expressive. That’s not surprising: deep down, we know our bodies can give us away, and we may try to shut them down.

If you’re interested in body language, you might like to read some of my previous posts on the subject, which include

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Four Ways to Fight Depression


Last week, a reader e-mailed me about a struggle with depression: while this person was working, good moods were possible, but at other times depression would creep in. Here are some suggestions that came out of that discussion.

In terms of immediate help, here are some things that might be especially helpful to try but that require at least a little time and effort.

First, walking somewhere beautiful–by a stream, in a park, in a quiet and beautiful park of town, or anything like that, especially near water and in natural places–can quickly make a difference in mood. It’s a calming practice that allows time to think, but it also gets your body moving and puts you in an environment that will tend to lift your spirits. I know it sounds so simple that it’s almost silly, but the research suggests this is an unusually good way to change your mood: see The Benefits of Quick, Easy, Pleasant Exercise .

A second approach is to get out and do something with people you enjoy spending time with, or to find a group that does something you enjoy ( is a good place to look). The moods of people nearby us affect our own moods, so that just spending time with happy people can help us be happier. (See Want to Reduce Stress? Increase Social Time.)

It seems that you can get some similar benefits sometimes with a pet (especially a dog or cat), if you enjoy pets, and I’ve certainly experienced pet-driven happiness myself.

Third, volunteering can be an enormous boost to mood and feelings of self-worth: there’s a different feeling to doing something good that you don’t have to do and don’t get paid for. Anything from donating blood to volunteering to shelve books at a local library to helping out at a fundraising event for a local charity can offer these benefits. Alternatively, you could just reach out to people you know, helping them with a difficult job–moving, for example.

A fourth thing that I can think of takes very little time and effort, although it will probably also sound silly: make yourself smile. Surprisingly, making an expression as though you have an emotion can set off the same neurophysiological reactions you would have if you actually have that emotion, so that a fake smile can become a real smile. See Using Body Language to Change Our Moods.

Each of these approaches is a short-term fix that reflects a long-term habit that can help mood: exercise, time in nature, time with friends, a sense of helping others, and a conscious effort to encourage positive emotions all can help create happiness as they become more habitual.

If you find that short-term approaches like this aren’t helping, a good cognitive therapist really might be able to open up new doors, provide essential support, and cultivate habits that support lasting happiness. I’d like to be sure to mention that I’m not  a licensed therapist myself, and this shouldn’t be construed as professional or expert advice.

Photo by tanakawho

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How to Tell a Real Smile from a Fake Smile


We’d all like to think we can see through a faker, somebody who’s pretending to smile but who inside is plotting your ruin, reeling in horror from your interior decor, or wishing they were somewhere else. Unfortunately, as a pretty much endless supply of dishonest politicians, successful confidence schemers, and cheating significant others proves, we’re not so great at it. This post will show you how to spot most fake smiles, largely using research from the near-legendary psychologist Paul Ekman and others who have worked with him or built on his findings.

By the way, I don’t want to suggest that fake smiles are entirely a bad thing. If someone wins a prize you were hoping to win and the best you can offer is a fake smile, that seems far kinder to me than offering the grimace or tears that might come more naturally. Fake smiles are sometimes appropriate social facilitators, and if the intention is right, they can sometimes be used to create real smiles. At other times, they’re danger signals, and at those times it helps to be able to see them for what they are.

Happiness moves muscles that are nearly impossible to fake
The reason we have a chance of telling the difference between real and fake smiles is that our unconscious response to happiness moves muscles that are next to impossible to move voluntarily. I’m sure you’ve had the occasion to have to fake-smile sometimes. How do you go about it? You raise the corners of your mouth, of course, using a muscle called the  zygomatic major. If you’re really putting your all into it, you’ll even scrunch up your eyes, and that will up the fool factor a lot.

Real happiness, though, moves muscles you might find harder to manage, especially above the eyes. We’ll look at those more closely in the following section, where I describe several things to look for in a real smile.

1. Are the eyes involved?
If you don’t see the muscles around the eyes move at all, the smile is almost certainly fake, regardless of how wide it is. Real smiles crinkle up the skin to the sides of the eyes, slightly dip the outer ends of the eyebrows, and lower the fold of skin between the eyebrow and the eyelid. These last two cues are very telling, but take some work to get used to spotting.

2. Is it lopsided?
Movies and novels would have us believe that a lopsided grin is an impish, playful, honestly happy expression. In real life, genuine smiles are normally symmetrical, while fake smiles can sometimes happen more on one side of the face than the other.

3. Is there an echo?
This is my own observation rather than something taken from research, but my experience is that when a real smile goes away, there’s a sort of echo or slow fading of the expression. Even when the smile is done, the smiler may look just a little happy for a moment. Compare that to the way a fake smile sometimes simply vanishes as though it never happened.

Quiz yourself
There’s a quiz on the BBC Web site that does a great job of testing the ability to recognize a real smile from a fake one. Ready to try it out? Go to .

Use with caution
When applying your understanding of smiles to guess at what someone else is thinking, please remember that no one part of the body gives a complete account of what’s going on. Body language recognition can be very useful and often very accurate, but it is only a set of clues, not absolute indications.

You might also be interested in these other posts on this site:

Photo by niznoz


How to Tell If Someone’s Interested in You, and Other Powers of Body Language

The human mind

A couple showing body language

I’ve gotten a chance to talk to middle schoolers a lot lately, and inevitably this subject comes up: someone wants to ask someone out, but isn’t sure if that person likes them.

“Why not just ask?” I say.

“Because I’ll be in school with this person for years,” I’m told. Or: “Because it’s a good friend of mine and I don’t want to make it weird if they don’t like me.” These are really good points, I’ve had to admit. Who wants to make things awkward with someone they know they’ll be seeing on a daily basis for the next five years? It’s the same problem an adult faces with a co-worker, for instance. What you really want in a situation like this is the ability to read minds.

Fortunately, that’s entirely possible.

How to read minds
Most people seem to realize that you can sometimes tell things about people by their body language–that someone with arms crossed over their stomach is feeling defensive, or that someone who turns away while talking to you isn’t interested. What’s amazing is how much more you can learn about people around you, how many signals you can pick up, if you begin to learn body language in detail.

Body language isn’t made up of absolute, definite signals. For instance, when someone says something and then touches their nose, that usually means what they’ve said is not true, or that they have reservations or misgivings–but not always. Sometimes it might just be that the a stray piece of dust made their nose itch. We can’t take any single gesture or expression as an absolute indication of anything–which is why Allen and Barbara Pease in The Definitive Book of Body Language talk about looking at sets and series of gestures instead of just trying to interpret one gesture alone.

With that said, some gestures are surprisingly reliable. If you learn to read body language clearly enough, when you walk down the street it’s as though little information bubbles are popping up over everyone you meet: she’s really interested in him, and he knows it but doesn’t feel the same waythat guy doesn’t want to talk to anyone … those two people are having a really honest conversation, but neither of them is worried.

Better than asking?
In fact, sometimes body language reveal more than direct answers to direct questions. That’s the premise of the TV series Lie to Me, which doesn’t exaggerate the effect too badly and uses very good information to inform the body language they use in the episodes.

To get back to my middle school friends, the suggestion I gave was this: walk up to the person you like as though you’re going to ask an important question, then say hi. If you’ve done a good job of looking like you’re going to ask something important, the other person will probably have a reaction: crossed arms over the chest usually means feeling threatened, possibly from not wanting to be asked an awkward question; turning away usually means that the person isn’t interested, or wants to get away; a smile that you can see even around the eyes means real happiness; leaning forward or turning toward you tends to mean they’re interested in what you’re going to say; a lopsided expression usually means sarcasm; and so on. The great thing about this approach is that you don’t have to actually ask the question. If you just give the impression that you have an important question for them (which you do!), they’ll usually give you some sense of how they feel about that possibility.

Quick pointers versus careful study
Of course, you can tell a lot more about what people are thinking if you study body language rather than just going with a few pointers, but either way, far more of our thoughts and opinions are out there for anyone to read than most of us realize.

If you’re interested in learning about gestures, expressions, and body language, I highly recommend the Peases’ book. I also have to say that I think a lot of Lie to Me from the four or five episodes I’ve seen so far, even though in the show experts often explain things that they already know to each other to clue us audience members in; I hate to see writers do that, although I can understand why they resort to it here. It’s like saying “As you know, professor …”

And if you’re wondering what all this has to do with self-motivation, there’s this question: how often do we hold back from doing something just because we don’t know what someone else thinks about it?

Photo by Ian Sane


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